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Coronavirus at work: what employers need to know

View profile for Gina McCadden
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Coronavirus has now been declared as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation and all across the world, people are facing different levels of lockdown and restrictions on their day to day lives and at work.  There have been various announcements from Government regarding the support open to employers during these uncertain times and here Gina McCadden, Employment Law Solicitor, provides a summary of the key facts about coronavirus and the key announcements. 

What is the coronavirus and what are the symptoms?

The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV or “Coronavirus”) was first reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December 2019.  People can experience flu-like symptoms such as a fever and a cough, which can develop into severe pneumonia causing breathing difficulties, as well as kidney failure.  Those who are more at risk include those with existing respiratory conditions, weakened immune systems, the elderly and those with long-term conditions such as diabetes, chronic lung disease and cancer. 

How can I reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading in the workplace?

Current Government advice is for everyone to stay at home, except in specific situations and following certain guidance when doing so, which includes:

  • Leaving the house only to go food shopping, one form of exercise daily or work where this absolutely cannot be done from home
  • Social distancing, i.e. staying 2 metres (6 feet) away from other people
  • Avoiding busy commuting times on public transport where travel is essential
  • Washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds.

Following this announcement, all employers are to encourage their employees to work from home where possible.  Unfortunately, the workplace can become a breeding ground for germs viruses if the correct measures are not taken.  If you do need to remain open, as an employer, you are responsible for the health and safety of your employees; however your workforce must also accept their responsibility in accordance with the law.

You should ensure excellent hygiene standards are enforced across the business through the frequent washing of hands, providing alcohol sanitising gels or wipes and displaying relevant signage to remind your employees of the risks concerned. 

Those in particular sectors should take additional steps, for example those in the care sector, working with children, the elderly or those who work with vulnerable members of the community.

Should I be paying my employee sick pay if they contract coronavirus or need to self-isolate?

One of the first announcements from the Chancellor was regarding Statutory Sick Pay (SSP).  SSP is now available from day one of absence instead of day four, and covers individuals who have been advised to self-isolate in line with Government guidance as well as though who are unwell.

Due to the high number of employees who could therefore be eligible for SSP, the Chancellor also announced a refund scheme for those businesses with less than 250 employees (as 28th February 2020) to be reimbursed.

What announcements have the Government made to support my business during coronavirus?

We have summarised below the key points from the announcement on 21st March, which comes under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme:

  • Employers can apply for a grant via HMRC to cover up to 80% of an employee's salary, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, by placing them on Furloughed Leave.
  • If you have already made the difficult decision to lay off some of your employees, this can be backdated to 28th February, if they were on the payroll at this time.
  • This covers all workers on the PAYE system, which includes those on zero hour contracts. 
  • The next quarter of VAT payments will be deferred until the end of June.

While these measures go a long way in supporting businesses, we know that some redundancies may be inevitable.  The Government is urging employers to consider the support available before doing so.

Other announcements that have come from the Chancellor include:

  • There will be a £7 billion uplift to Universal Tax Credit and Working Tax Credits, with self-employed workers now able to access in full Universal Tax Credit at a rate equivalent to SSP for employees.  The next self-assessment payments will also be deferred until January 2021.
  • The introduction of IR35 has been delayed from April 2020 to April 2021.  We would still strongly recommend that you continue your preparations for this – this is only a delay, not a removal of the legislation and it may take some time to prepare your Status Determination Statements, which we can help you with.
  • Retail, leisure and hospitality companies' with a rateable value of less than £51,000 will not pay any business rates this year.
  • The Business Interruption Scheme previously announced has been extended to be interest free for 12 months.

If your employees are concerned about their financial future, they will be pleased to have heard that there are the options of a three month mortgage break and a total ban on evictions for three months, with £1billion being pledged to cover 30% of housing rental costs.

A scheme has also been introduced for the self-employed, under the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme:

  • The scheme is open to anyone with trading profits of up to £50,000 who make the majority of their income from self-employment, and only those who are already in self-employment who had tax return in 2019.
  • A taxable grant of up to 80% of average monthly profits over the last 3 years up to £2,500 a month will be available.
  • Access to the scheme will happen no later than the beginning of June and will run for at least three months, to be extended if necessary.
  • The welfare system has been changed so that self-employed can access Universal Credit in full. 

The concept of Furloughed Leave in particular has left many employers with more questions regarding employees they may have already made redundant, those on maternity, long term sickness absence or holiday, and how it impacts National Minimum Wage.  While we are still coming to terms with the legislation ourselves, we would always recommend that before you proceed with any form of redundancy, particularly if you are required to follow the collective consultation redundancy route, that you seek legal advice to ensure you do so in a fair and consistent manner to reduce the risk of tribunal claims in the future.

We can assist in a number of ways over the coming months, including offering tailored advice to suit your business needs as well as providing you with template letters, briefing notes and checklists. To discuss how we can support your business during these times, you can contact Gina or the Employment team on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.